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This seemingly strange phrase may go unnoticed when reading paragraph 1 of chapter 11 as found in the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith. It is buried among the body of the paragraph with well-known truth surrounding it, but this little phrase is still used by the confessional writers. Why is it significant? First, we need to understand what justification is to see why this phrase is important.
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”Romans 3:21-26 ESV
Any true Christian and especially those of the Reformed tradition should be familiar with this passage. It is a classic proof text for the doctrine of justification by faith alone. That God gives us His righteousness apart from the law and that comes to us through faith in Christ. This alien righteousness that originates not in us but comes from God via the work that Jesus did on earth in a life of perfect, positive obedience to the Law, and passive obedience in His death. Christ fulfilled it all. The covenant of works was broken by a man and since we each are unified to our federal head (Adam) we must be freed by a man (Romans 5:12-17). Therefore, a perfect man was needed and the only perfect man that lived was Christ. Jesus paid for the sins of His people thereby fulfilling the requirements needed to fulfill the Law. He was one of us and could identify Himself with us and truly stand in our place. And since we cannot be justified by any mere man’s righteousness, we are left with Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us. This is the “righteousness of God”.
Imputing Faith Itself?
The writers of the 2nd London Baptist Confession were careful to put this note in here (this phrase seems to be the same or at least substantially the same as the Savoy Declaration of 1658 and the Westminster Confession of Faith). This showed their agreement with the broader Reformed community on this issue of justification and the language surrounding it, at least in relation to faith not being imputed to us. To understand this issue we need to start with Romans:
“What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,”Romans 4:1-5 ESV
Paul very clearly says here that our faith is “counted” as righteous. This “counting” has to do with imputation that God is “treating us as if we had obeyed His law perfectly”. Seems the matter is settled then. Our faith is treated as righteousness. But notice what Paul says in the same passage above. He contrasts the working of the law for justification with believing in faith. One is working, contributing to our salvation (or at least trying to) while another is merely believing. There is no working in faith according to Paul. Otherwise, God would owe us something. He would owe us salvation. He would owe us righteousness. It would not be a gift given freely and without merit. In other words, Paul qualifies his assertion in the surrounding context. It is also important to note that faith is a work. And a good work at that, one that comports with God’s law. And if it was accredited to us as being righteous in relation to our justification, we would have done something that counted toward our standing before God. This would undermine Paul’s entire arguments about our works being separate from our justification. Faith would be a work that helped count in the “righteousness” that gave me good standing before God’s tribunal. This is unfathomable.
Our brief review of this phrase should help us to stay away from even considering our faith being imputed to us. This would be a dangerous error. Instead, we should rest in the finished work of Christ in His passive obedience (death satisfying the punishment of sin) and active obedience (his obedience to the law itself). We have nothing to offer.
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